Japanese officials began quietly encouraging people to evacuate a larger swath of territory around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Friday, a sign that they hold little hope that the crippled facility will soon be brought under control.
The authorities said they would now assist people who want to leave the area from 12 to 19 miles outside the crippled plant and said they were now encouraging "voluntary evacuation" from the area. Those people had been advised March 15 to remain indoors, while those within a 12-mile radius of the plant had been ordered to evacuate.
Speaking to a national audience at a news conference Friday night, Prime Minister Naoto Kan dodged a question about whether government was ordering a full evacuation, saying officials were simply following the recommendation of the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission.
In the latest setback to the effort to contain the nuclear crisis, evidence emerged that the reactor vessel of the No 3 unit may have been damaged, an official said Friday.
The development, described at a news conference by Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, raises the possibility that radiation from the mox fuel in the reactor - a combination of uranium and plutonium - could be released.
One sign that a breach may have occurred in the reactor vessel, Nishiyama said, took place on Thursday when three workers who were trying to connect an electrical cable to a pump in a turbine building next to the reactor were injured when they stepped into water that was found to be significantly more radioactive than normal in a reactor.